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Solid Catholic Scholarship, So Long and Deeply Wounded

John Kelleher

Far too much of the present-day American Catholic exegetical establishment exercises its office by means of an avowal of epistemological and hermeneutic principles that are fundamentally incompatible with the worship of the Church.

A signal example of this is the astounding remark of Raymond Brown, SS, during his lifetime considered the dean of the American Catholic exegetical community, that "God does not speak." This amply Nestorian hermeneutic is repeated a number of times and even augmented in Brown's 1981 The Critical Meaning of the Bible, and no number of Brown's assertions of his allegiance to the Chalcedonian professions can quite succeed in obliterating our astonishment that a Catholic priest can make such a remark, repeat it, and never repudiate it.

Of course, Brown did not find that God does not speak. He found what his epistemological and hermeneutic principles allowed him to find. It was as though he had examined a consecrated host, using all the tools and rules for the production and use of knowledge accepted by the modern New Class, and announced that, although he is in every way a faithful and supportive Catholic, the "literal" and thus "controlling" meaning of the host is "in tension" with the profession that the host is the Lord indeed.

Yet the problem is far deeper than either a modern or an Enlightenment evocation of autonomous rationality as the "real," the "professional" rationality, besides which all else is "fundamentalism" or lacks "nuance." Endless grist for modern scholarly dissent is provided by a pagan conception of real knowledge as radically apart from time, which was incorporated whole-cloth, not in the worship of the Church, but by traditional Catholic theology, in which, e.g., the Thomist God, the Deus Unus, is the Most Holy Trinity by prestidigitation, not argument.

That this sleight-of-hand could be dutifully repeated for centuries is no more startling than the centuries-long repetition by natural philosophers of Aristotle's statement in On the Heavens ( that of two bodies the one with twice the mass will fall from the same height in only one-half the time. For generations too few Catholics have been shocked that a rationality formally disjunct from time is a rationality formally disjunct from the sacraments - thus in no formal, systematic, methodological need of them. From thence, the autonomous rationality of the clerks - of any age - waits in the wings.

Therefore it is no particular surprise that within a hundred years of St. Thomas's death, his own University of Paris was the premiere intellectual center of support for the Avignonese popes in particular and the autonomous rationality of the clerics in general, no particular surprise that by 1431 many of its faculty, led by Pierre Cauchon, its former rector, saw Joan the Maid as the literal embodiment of a mindlessness, naivete, unsophistication, and anti-intellectualism whose sign was uncritical support of the inept and abusive tyranny of monarchic absolutism, whether royal or papal, and took direct charge of the mission to burn that body which embodied all they detested and scatter its ashes to the four winds.

In short, beginning in the 1960s the American Catholic university gradually overcame its festering intellectual embarrassment by operating "professionally"; that is, in as conscious a conformity as possible with the rules of modern autonomous rationality, in a move that was, though not dictated, at least prefigured by, deep and ancient currents. Raymond Brown's embrace of a rationality that is methodologically disjunct from the sacraments, and his methodological inability to find God actually speaking in the particular, in particular words in time with all its ravages and dissolutions and fragmentations, are one and the same ancient error, not a new one, made perennial even within the Church in theories by which rationality exists and knowledge may be pursued apart from or even in noble disdain of time, history, and their one Lord.

At once in all such theories - however implicitly - the unsolvable pagan conundrum of the One and the Many appears; intelligibility is no longer free and thus can no longer be distinguished from mere order, nor order from mere stasis; and rationality is in the final analysis not faith freely seeking understanding but the submission of the intellect - not to the living God - but to order, or chaos. Equally as astounding as Brown's remark in 1981 is one made in a 1998 article in the magazine Catholic Dossier [4(5), p. 6] by Ralph McInerny, a prominent Thomist considered a stalwart defender of the faith, that there are "obligations antecedent to choice, rules that bind us whether we like it or not." According to McInerny, necessity is prior to choice and binds free will itself, lest rationality become relativism. Not even the Catechism's ultra-blunt statement that the world "is not the product of any necessity whatever" [CCC 295] deters the dedicated Thomist from his appointed epistemological rounds.

In all such pagan epistemologies, whether Brownian or McInernian, time appears as the Universal Solvent of the real, a consequence of sin, not the possibility of freedom; and genuine surprise is absurd, even repulsive. Driven mad, man then both seeks a God who says nothing, and yearns to enslave himself to a book in which all answers are already written down. Thus in the end both science and society desire both license and a Theory of Everything, with yet the same single goal, to forget and to repudiate time.

The flight from time is thus the denial of the simultaneous freedom and intelligibility of the material singular, and upon the invocation of such a denial - however implicitly - the Eucharist becomes a problem for theology, something to be explained in terms of some more comprehensive timeless principle, rather than the world's fundamental datum, which waits upon nobody's preconceptions, however venerable. Thus bereft of its object, theological technique spirals downward, unchecked by any counterweight to fallen man's insistent fallen aversion to time and thence to God, who is known to man only in time in Christ. Theology as closed system, as academic aridity, as folk religion, as the lap dog of the salon, as the mechanism by which ideological blindness is manufactured in quantities sufficient to the needs of the devotees of whatever political or eschatological idolatry - no vice is then strange to it.

A fundamentally pagan theory can be blunted by holy practice, but only better theorizing actually converts it to the Christ. Here too the irony is immense, for, of all theologies, only Catholic theology is an experimental science. It alone perennially allows its theories to be put to the question by objective reality, by the sacraments, by the actual magisterium of the actual Catholic Church; but the magisterium can not do theology for man. When Catholic theology gets it in its head that its fundamental ideas, and not the works in time of the Lord of history alone, transcend time itself, there is, perhaps quite literally, hell to pay. Become significantly anti-experimental and thus significantly anti-scientific, theology collapses into a patently incurious scheme, pre-defined as orthodox and rational precisely and only because all the questions it could ever put to itself have already been answered.

One wonders which readers read the preceding as a critique of McInerny, which of Brown. It is a highly instructive irony that a great theologian deemed "conservative" by some, Hans Urs von Balthasar, was (at least in this) at one with the postmodernists in rejecting all systems of theology as fundamentally untheological. True radicals are at least seeing the symptoms truly, however faulty their proposed cures.

That St. Thomas was a saint and one of our greatest theological scientists, and nothing more, does no harm to him, but we are harmed if we try to turn any theology into magisterium, into Revelation, into what it studies. If Catholic theology's epistemology is fundamentally pagan, then theology lives, but its wound runs very deep. Is rationality a timeless demi-urge, or a gift of the one and unsubsumed Trinity whose sole font in this fallen world is the Eucharist? Here man's true, real autonomy appears. Until rationality itself is Catholic - fully Trinitarian, methodologically part of the sacramental economy given in the Eucharist - then Catholic scholarship about anything whatever remains at risk from every quarter without respite, at risk from the cautious middle no less than from the left and from the right.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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